As Scotland, indeed the entire UK, lies deep under snow (just as February ends and Spring is meant to be on the way), Alexander turns to an area of the world where the winters are even colder and the area of writing now referred to as Scandinavian Noir…
- Scandinavian Noir is now established as one of the most popular genres in crime fiction. If the appetite of readers throughout the world for sudden death was whetted by crimes taking place in innocent English villages, then Scandinavian noir has more than satisfied that demand. Whereas in the past we were content with innocuous ladies and Belgian detectives sorting out bodies in libraries and trains, now we want something more Nordic. We want crimes committed by people with unpronounceable names, who are members of unstable political coalitions, and carried out in the half light of the Scandinavian winter. We want a large cast of moody characters who suffer from depression and other forms of Scandinavian angst, who live in apartments furnished with the best that Danish design has to offer, and who drive Saabs of a certain vintage. This is Scandinavian noir, written, for the most part, by authors called Per, or Andersen, or, in some cases, Per Andersen. And it’s so gripping that we cannot get enough of it. Every sort of criminality has been explored, ranging from ordinary common-or-garden homicide to serial homicide carried out on a transnational basis. If we thought that life in Agatha Christie’s quiet English villages was exceptionally dangerous, then it is but as nothing compared with the hazards of Malmo or Copenhagen.
- Malmo, in fact, was the home town of Ulf Varg, one of the less well-known Swedish detectives. Ulf’s name is interesting; Ulf means Wolf in Swedish and Varg means the same thing in Danish. If names are our destiny—as some suggest they are—then Ulf Varg was destined form the outset for a career in the criminal investigation department of the Malmo police. And that is exactly where he went to work at the age of twenty-three, after he had graduated in criminology from the University of Uppsala.
He had been offered a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies abroad, but Ulf turned this down on the grounds that he wanted to put his criminological skills to practical use.
“I don’t want to spend my life studying crime,” he said. “I want to solve it. I want to track down offenders and confront them. I want to look into their eyes as I make the accusation.”
His professor had warned him that police work involved a lot of dull and uninspiring hard work. “It can get you down,” the professor said. “That’s why so many detectives have a drink problem. And a marital problem too. That’s why they live by themselves in small flats to which they return late at night and can’t get to sleep for thinking about their intractable cases. Are you sure that that’s the sort of life you want to lead.”
“Yes,” said Ulf. “Quite sure.”
- Ulf made rapid progress in the Malmo police department. His persistence was noted by his superiors, and they also liked the clear style of his reports. Ulf did not waste his words, but wrote pithy comments in his reports indicating what he thought of the people whose interviews he was transcribing. Liar, he might write at the end of their statements; or hiding something, or even guilty.
“Ulf is not afflicted by doubt,” said one of his superiors. “He has an instinct for solving crimes—and he follows it.”
“Intuition,” said another. “It makes all the difference to police work—good, old-fashioned Swedish intuition.”
At the age of thirty, Ulf met and married a woman who was a location manager for a Swedish film company. She was called Ingrid, and she came from a well-known and fairly wealthy Stockholm family. They married on the small island that her father owned in the Stockholm archipelago. At the end of the ceremony, Ulf and Ingrid left the island by boat, the cheers of their guests ringing in their ears. On the way back to Stockholm, the boat overturned when it was hit by the wash of a passing ferry. Ingrid, still wearing her wedding dress, was unable to swim and she had disappeared by the time that Ulf appeared from his initial immersion. Ulf was inconsolable and did not go out with women until three years had elapsed. Then he had entered into a relationship with a dog-walker, a woman who had a small firm called Contented Hounds. That relationship lasted four years, and then she became discontented and left him for a man who owned a chain of butcher shops. She left behind the dog they had jointly adopted, Marten. They had both loved this dog, but she had been prepared to leave him with Ulf as a gesture. “I can’t help but think I’m in the wrong,” She said. “Leaving Marten with Ulf makes things a tiny bet better – not much, but a bit.”
- Marten was a large dog who looked, in some lights at least, a bit like a wolf.
“A lot of our dogs have a bit of wolf in them,” said Ulf. “It shows in their eyes, I think. But also in the way they bark. Some dogs howl, rather than bark. That’s a giveaway, in my opinion. You hear a dog barking and you say to yourself: wolf.”
Marten was hearing-impaired. Nobody was sure just how much he could hear, but the vet said that he thought it was probably not very much.
Ulf compensated for Marten’s disability by taking him to classes in lip-reading for dogs. Marten proved to be a quick learner, and after six weeks was able to lip-read the major commands a dog needs to understand—sit, biscuit, walks, fetch and so on—all in Swedish, of course. Marten did not understand Danish or Norwegian, although there were some dogs in the class that did.
- It was January, just into the new year, and the weather in Malmo was colder than usual. In the offices of the criminal investigation department, there had been an intense discussion on the temperature at which the thermostats should be set. Ulf had felt that it was wasteful to have the heating so high that one could work in shirt-sleeves. “That’s unnatural for Sweden,” he said. “Miami, yes, but not Malmo. We don’t have to freeze, but we don’t need to bask in artificial heat.”
They were arguing about this when the superintendant of the Serious Crime Division entered the room. He was a man in his late fifties, with an alcohol and a marital problem.
“Stop arguing about the temperature,” he said. “We’re in for much colder conditions, anyway. Look out the window.”
The detectives all looked out of the window. They could see that the sky in the east was heavy with cloud.
“Snow,” said the most junior member of the division.
‘Yes,” said another.
“A lot of snow,” said a third colleague.
There was a silence. Then Ulf spoke: “Snow all over the place.”
This was greeted with a further silence, which was eventually broken by the superintendant. “There’s been a very serious crime,” he said. “It took place at the German Market.”
“How serious?” asked the junior detective.
“A stabbing,” said the superintendant. “Not fatal, I’m relieved to say, but serious enough.”
Ulf thought about this. “A fight?”
The superintendant shrugged. ‘I don’t know. We’ll have to work that out. Varg, you’re on the case. Get over to the hospital to interview the victim. Then go over to the market and speak to any witnesses.”
“All right,” said Ulf.
The junior detective looked envious. “Can I go with Ulf?” he asked.
The superintendant shook his head. “There’s going to be snow,” he muttered. ‘You stay inside.”
- Ulf drove over to the hospital in his old Saab, parking it in a visitor bay and then making his way to a door marked Entrance. Once inside, he took off his coat and looked about him.
A receptionist behind a desk looked up at him. “Is it cold outside?” she asked.
“Very,” said Ulf. “I think there’s going to be snow.”
‘There always is,” she said. “Round about this time of year. There’s snow.”
Ulf nodded. “It’s the same every year,” he said. “It gets cold, and then it snows.”
“And the dark,” said the receptionist. “The days are so short now.”
“They’ll be getting longer,” said Ulf. “that’s the important thing to remember. It may be dark now, but it won’t always be.”
“How true,” said the receptionist. She seemed interested in why he was there. “Why are you here?” she asked.
Ulf showed her his card. “Malmo police,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “You want to speak to somebody?”
“There’s been a stabbing,” said Ulf.
“Then you need to go to the casualty department,” said the receptionist. “Ask for Dr Anders. You go along that corridor there and then you turn left. You can’t go wrong.”
Ulf thanked her and made his way along the corridor. A woman went past him, walking in the opposite direction. As she went by, he heard her mutter, “The pointlessness of it all—the sheer pointlessness of it all.”
He wanted to ask her what she meant, but he did not have the time. It was time, he thought, that stopped us from making real contact with our fellow human beings. Our dealings with most of them were brief and insubstantial—all because of the tyranny of time.
- In the casualty department a junior doctor took him to the victim. He was called Olav and he was unusually tall. He had a reddish complexion and a fairly substantial red beard. Ulf knew the type—there were Viking genes here.
Ulf sat down next to the trolley on which Olav was lying. “What happened?” he asked.
“I was standing in the market with my girlfriend,” said Olav. “We were buying a present for her mother – it’s her sixty-third birthday coming up. She lives way up north – she’s a schoolteacher at a Laplander school. She speaks one of the Sami languages almost perfectly.”
“Interesting,” said Ulf. “Then what happened?”
“Suddenly I felt this pain in my right leg – down near the knee. Then I felt a pain in my left leg – same place. I wondered whether I had done something – maybe ruptured my Achilles tendon.”
Ulf shook his head. “The Achilles tendon is nowhere near the knee.”
Olav looked doubtful. ‘Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Ulf. He noticed that one of the doctors was walking past, and he called him over.
‘Doctor,” he asked. “Can you tell us where the Achilles tendon is?”
“Just above the ankle,” said the doctor.
‘That settles that,” said Ulf. “So it wasn’t your Achilles tendon.”
“All right,” said Olav. “It was just at the back of the knee—right there. And when my girlfriend turned round she screamed, “Olav! Olav! There’s blood. Your knees are bleeding at the back.”
Ulf winced. Although he had developed an ability to distance himself professionally, he always found blood, or descriptions of blood, a bit worrying.
“Did you see what had happened?”
Olav shook his head. “No, there was nobody to be seen. Whoever stabbed me had made himself scarce pretty quickly. There was quiet a crowd around—he must have melted into that.”
Ulf listened carefully. Not so easy to melt in cold weather, he thought.
“So you saw nothing,” he said.
“Nothing,” answered Olav. “Nothing at all.”
Ulf hesitated. “Do you have any enemies? Do you know of anybody who might wish to stab you in the knees?”
“I have no enemies that I know of,” said Olav.
Ulf looked out of the window. It was always more difficult when the victim was without enemies—especially in a crime of this nature when the modus operandi of the perpetrator was so bizarre. Who would stab anybody else in the knees? What possible motive could there be for such an attack?
- There was no more information to be obtained from the victim, who needed, anyway, to be taken off to be stitched up. So Ulf now drove to the German Market, where, in spite of the cold, the stall-holders were still doing good business with the milling crowds of shoppers. A uniformed officer, stationed at the entrance, directed Ulf to the stall in front of which the attack had taken place.
The stallholder was a think man with an ascetic-looking expression.
“I have never had any violence anywhere near my stall,” he said. ‘I’m deeply shocked by what happened. How can anybody go and stab another person in the back of the knees – just like that—in broad daylight? How can they?”
“You saw nothing, I take it,” said Ulf.
“Nothing at all,” said the stallholder. “I was concentrating on a scented candle that I was wrapping for a young couple. It was for her mother, who works as a teacher up north and who speaks one of the Sami languages…”
Ulf cut him short. “I know all about that,” he said. “You sure you saw nothing suspicious?”
“Not a thing,” said the stallholder. He looked at Ulf enquiringly. ‘Do you think it could be something to do with organized crime?”
Ulf shook his head. “Why would organized crime be involved in a knee-stabbing?”
The stallholder shrugged. “It might be the way they punish people. Who knows.”
Ulf thanked him left. He wanted to have a look around the scene of the crime – just in case the perpetrator had dropped something, as such people sometimes do. A bus ticket, perhaps, or a letter addressed to him, or a glove of a sort sold only in one shop in town – something of that sort.
He walked round to the back of the stall. There was nothing unusual to be seen – apart from a small blood stain on a canvas awning about two feet of the ground. Ulf looked at it for some time before he turned round and made his way back to the entrance to the market where he had seen the uniformed officer. Ulf was thinking. Could it be possible? Could it be that simple?
“Were you on duty here at the time of the incident?” Ulf asked.
The officer nodded. “All the time, sir,” he said.
‘And did you see any small people coming or going?” asked Ulf.
While he waited for the answer, Ulf felt the cold creeping up through the soles of his shoes. He had been given a pair of electric socks for his last birthday but Marten had chewed a hole in them. He would have to get another pair—he had always felt the cold in his feet.
“Small people? You mean children?” said the officer.
“No,” said Ulf. “Small adults.”
“You mean dwarves? Or midgets perhaps?”
Ulf frowned. “Something like that.”
The policeman was stroking his chin. “There was somebody,” he said. “But it was just Edvard.”
“Yes. He’s the man who runs the ballroom dancing academy on the other side of the square. He’s a dwarf, if you’re allowed to use the word today.”
“I don’t think so,” said Ulf. “And with reason. Language can hurt, you know. Small person, perhaps.” He paused. “So he was the only person of limited stature you saw?”
“Yes,” said the officer. ‘I recognised him. He walked past me with his hands in his pockets.”
Ulf tensed. “With his hands in his pockets?”
“Yes,” said the officer. “It was cold, you see—and it’s going to get colder. Look at the sky over there…”
- Ulf stood at the entrance to the Malmo Ballroom Dancing Academy. The door was unlocked and he was able to make his way up the stairs before he found anybody. It was Edvard.
Ulf looked down on the top of Edvard’s head. The dance instructor had a fine head of dark hair, parted in the centre in the style of dancing instructors of the nineteen thirties. Guilty hair, though Ulf.
“You’re Edvard?” Ulf said.
“Who’s asking?” said the instructor.
“Ulf Varg,” said Ulf. “Malmo police.”
It was a simple, utterly correct answer, and it had the desired effect. Immediately Edvard began to tremble.
“I couldn’t help myself,” he said. “I’d tried to forgive him, but I couldn’t. I had to let him know of the hurt he’d caused me.”
Ulf thought he knew what Edvard meant. “He’d laughed at you when you were dancing with a tall person? That’s it, isn’t it?”
Edvard nodded. “People don’t understand,” he said. ‘They don’t understand what we have to put up with.”
Ulf was a sympathetic man. He understood the pain of others, and he could imagine what Edvard must have felt. Yet he could nlt let the matter go.
“I’m going to have to charge you,” he said. “But I’m going to charge you with accidental injury. You won’t have to go to jail.”
“That’s very good of you,” said Edvard. “And I’ll not do it again. I have the address somewhere of an anger-management class I can go to.”
“Good,” said Ulf.
- Ulf returned to the office, where he knocked on the door of the superintendent.
“Solved,” he said. “I arrested a person of limited growth and charged him with accidental stabbing.”
“That’s quick work,” said the superintendent. “How did you do it?”
“The site of the injury,” said Ulf. “Lower limbs. Knees, in fact. And a blood-stain at a low level on a canvas sheet.”
“Detective work is like that, isn’t it,” mused the superintendent. “It’s not difficult at all. Sometimes the truth is staring you in the face.”
“Or otherwise,” said Ulf.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a natural level for everything,” said Ulf, enigmatically.
The superintendent looked out of the window. “Months and months of this weather,” he said. ‘That’s what gets me about being Scandinavian. We have months of this weather.”
“Oh well,” said Ulf. “We’re used to it, aren’t we?”
The superintendent nodded. “I must get some raw fish on the way home. We’re having raw fish tonight.” He paused. “My wife wondered whether you would care to join us?”
“I would,” said Ulf.
“Good work, by the way,” said the superintendent.